Maybe the Sky is Really Green, and We’re Just Colourblind:
On Zapping, Close Encounters and the Commercial Break



Swanson TV Dinner Commercial, 1953

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The TV Dinner

Media and Marketing Decisions magazine pointed out that the habit of physical zapping, running off to the toilet or grabbing a beer from the refrigerator during a commercial break, was practised by 30–40 per cent of television viewers.20 At one point Hitchcock had jokingly appealed for longer commercials: "they are so short that one must be very agile to get to the kitchen and back!" But a handy solution was already in the making: adeptly tuned into the growing TV society, Swanson and Sons advertised their first TV Dinner in 1954.21 The story goes that executive Gerald Thomas didn't know what to do with 270 tons of left-over Thanksgiving turkey. Inspired by the aluminium food trays used in the airline industry, he picked up on the idea of filling the trays with turkey and marketing them as a TV Dinner for 98 cents a piece. And so another new cultural icon zapped itself into the living room, transforming the eating habits of millions of Americans.22 With the convenience of a food tray, one could easily stay parked in front of the tube without the need to run off to the kitchen, and thus the art of dinner conversation was rapidly replaced with "sappy sitcoms" sprinkled with commercial interruptions.23

An extra to the pre-packaged TV meals was the marvel of "canned laughter". Live audiences did not always laugh at the right moment, or laughed either too long or too loudly. So the "Laff Box", a backstage device with a variety of push-button laughs, was brought in as a substitute for live audiences to ''sweeten'' shows with pre-recorded laughter.24 Similarly, the advertising industry was sugar-coating its image of a happy consumer to an emerging TV society.